Philip Caputo, “A Rumor of War”

Philip Caputo was raised in Westchester, Illinois. He spent his fishing, hunting, and dreaming of “danger, challengers, and violence” (Caputo 5) in the Cook and DuPage County forest preserves. Tired of his dull

life, Philip wanted excitement and a “chance to live heroically” (5). While attending Loyola University, Caputo rummaged through the Marine Corps recruiting material. Subsequently, he joined the Marine Corps Platoon leaders Class, attended Officer Candidate School, received his B.A. in English, and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant on February 2, 1964.
Lieutenant Caputo was with the first ground combat unit to land in Vietnam in March of 1965 ( ). He went from a “boot brown-bar” (Caputo 33) to a seasoned infantry officer during his sixteen month tour of duty.
Caputo started writing A Rumor of War in 1967 while living at the Bachelor’s Officer Quarters at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. He did not finish the book until September of 1976 in Pine Creek, Montana. After leaving the Marine Corps, he worked for the Chicago Tribune as a Foreign Correspondent. He was extremely busy reporting in areas such as Saigon and Lebanon that he did not have time to work on his first book; “the manuscript often lay in a drawer for months. There was a period, in the early 70’s, when I didn’t look at it for more than a week or two a year” (Caputo 347).
A Rumor of War tells the story of the Vietnam War from the soldier’s perspective. Caputo puts everything into perspective by describing every detail of war through his personal experience. This account allows readers to have a better understanding of the reality of war and what these young men endured.

Caputo has since written several novels including Horn of Africa, Del Corso’s Gallery, and Means of Escape. He currently lives in Connecticut and works as a Contributing Editor for Esquire Magazine. In the past Philip has written for The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, and The Los Angeles Times. He was also a member of the Pulitzer Prize winning team covering election fraud during his time at the Chicago Tribune.

The overall critical reviews of Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War are outstanding. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of The New York Times hailed the book as “singular and marvelous, one that, tells us, as no other book that I can think of has done, what it was actually like to be fighting in that hellish jungle” (Contemporary Authors Online). The heartfelt and brutal honesty in Caputo’s writing had William Broyles of Texas Monthly declare “Not since Siegfried Sassoon’s Classic of World War I, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, has there been a war memoir so obviously true, and so disturbingly honest” (Amazon). The magnitude of this story had John Gregory Dunne write “To call it the best book about Vietnam is to trivialize it…” (Amazon). Brian King of Clio’s Eye stated A Rumor of War “reflects much of the pain and ambivalence the nation came to know to well” (1).

The general consensus regarding Philip Caputo’s works following A Rumor of War is excellent as well. The praise for Indian Country Caputo’s most recent novel is overwhelmingly positive. The New York Times Book Review states “Caputo is a fine action writer, controlling the sweep of the narrative with musical skill” (Vintage). The acclaim for Horn of Africa states “Philip Caputo, from Vietnam onwards, has understood the hardest truths of the modern world better than almost anybody” (Vintage). John Gregory Dunne claims that Caputo’s first collection of short fiction Exiles “will make the strongest among us weep” (Vintage).

The book takes place in Japan and Vietnam. Okinawa, Japan is Caputo’s first duty station after graduation from Basic School. He was assigned to 2nd platoon, C Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines where he served as Platoon Commander for a rifle platoon.

There was nothing exciting about Camp Schwab; a camp that consisted of “ranks of concrete barracks and chain linked fences which looked more like a minimum security prison than a home” (Caputo 30). A short Taxi ride into town was the closest thing to civilization (Caputo 30).

The streets of Heneko were lined with bars which had ridiculous names such as Bar New York, Club California, and the Blue Hawaii Lounge. Heneko was a place the Marines could rid themselves of the boredom of the isolated base. When the Marines were not unwinding, they were dreaming of action.

In the weeks to follow, the Marines of One-Three would gear up and gear down in anticipation of going into Vietnam. Apparently the North Vietnamese had crossed into South Vietnam with the intent of overrunning the country. Excitement and confusion followed. The news of going in to Vietnam changed daily, along with “weeks of alarms and counter-alarms, stand-tos and stand-downs” (Caputo 37).

In March they would finally land in Danang and set up a defensive posture in conjunction with the ARVN. The Marines would quickly learn that Vietnam was totally different than the place they were used to. The toughest battle they faced in the first month in the theater was not with the Viet Cong, but with Vietnam’s climate and wildlife. The mosquito netting and the insect repellant they brought with them “proved ineffective against the horde of flying, creeping, crawling, buzzing, biting things,” (Caputo 57) that they encountered. The heat and humidity were just as bad “the terrain and the climate and the attendant diseases were more of an adversary than the Viet Cong” (CNN).

From noon until dusk the sun was relentless. Accompanied by a hot wind, it baked everything in sight including the Marines. The dense jungle canopy that they traversed through was also a major obstacle, which at times was so dense that it was impenetrable. The little bit of light that filtered through the foliage managed to “bathe everything below in a greenish twilight” (Caputo 83). Things could be hear moving around the under brush, but not seen. The monsoon season seemed endless and diseases such as malaria and dysentery were commonplace. The jungle of Vietnam was in itself a battle that was being lost.

William “Wild Bill” Campbell was the platoon sergeant for 2nd platoon. A picture perfect Marine who was a veteran of the Korean War. He stood 6’3’’ and weighed 220 pounds. Campbell ate, slept, and breathed Marine Corps.

Being a Veteran of the “frosin chosin” he was respected by his peers and subordinates alike. He was not a man of paperwork and sometimes he did not follow the Uniformed Code of Military Justice. Campbell would rather punish his men in different ways, which kept their records clean and kept them eligible for promotion.

One of Campbell’s biggest passions was close-order drill. He had been previously assigned to Parris Island, South Carolina as a Drill Inspector. It was a skill that he had perfected. Given the opportunity, Campbell would march his platoon around the parade deck for hours. Sergeant Campbell didn’t like officers. He ran his platoon as he saw fit. In his eyes, he was the platoon commander and Caputo was just an “unavoidable nuisance” (Caputo 30). Campbell was considered a lifer, someone who was more motivated than the average Marine and in it for the long haul.

Murph McCloy was also a Lieutenant with One-Three. He was a modest man from Kentucky. McCloy had already been with the unit before Lieutenant Caputo had arrived.
Murph and Caputo became friends almost immediately. They hung out together on liberty and talked about anything to keep their minds off of the Vietnam War. They were together drinking beer in Okinawa when the call came in to head out for Vietnam.

McCloy had done a pervious tour in Vietnam as an observer with the ARVN. Familiar with Danang he was eager to show Philip around the foreign town. They sat down to have dinner with the Commanding Officer of the ARVN battalion McCloy had served with the first night they had liberty.

They found their way down to a brothel that McCloy used to frequent. Upon arrival they ran into three Marines from Charley Company who were just coming out. Murph, who was stunned, covered for both of them by saying “Lieutenant Caputo and I are checking to make sure you men are taking care of yourselves. We hope you’re taking precautions” (Caputo 143).

A major theme in A Rumor of War is the men who fight in the war and the moral extremes that they confront along the way. War is a time that changes men. Things which are not accepted as normal behavior during peace time can be found here and are often considered ordinary or usual.

As the book unfolds, Caputo observes acts of violence that do not seem right. One time, early in the conflict, he catches a young Marine trying to cut off the ears of a dead Viet Cong as a trophy. He stops the act immediately, but as he thinks about the act he understands why the young Marine was doing this. Another incident that happens is with the South Vietnamese. It was difficult to trust them because of the intelligence which stated how the Viet Cong were embedded in the South. When military operations went wrong the South Vietnamese people were blamed for aiding the Viet Cong, and the consequences for such Snafu’s included killing innocent people “Well, if it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC” (CNN) or burning entire villages to the ground. These acts were not right. However, when a Marine was killed, it was not uncommon for anger to take over in committing extreme acts of violence.

At the beginning of the Vietnam War, 2nd Lieutenant Philip Caputo was a man who believed in the ideals of heroism, serving his country, and being a part of something meaningful. He believed that the Marine Corps stood for all the right things: Honor, Courage, Commitment! Michael Steele states in regards to Caputo’s heroism “he bought the bullshit about heroism, the patriotic war. So, he goes and joins the Marines, and he records this embittering process” (Steele 6).

Caputo maintained this point of view only for a short time. As his company goes to war and his men start dying, he realizes it was not all it was cracked up to be. As his men begin to doubt the fact that they will win this war, so does Lieutenant Caputo, being an officer he tries to maintain his military bearing, but in the end he tells a Marine “I’m not supposed to say this to you, but I don’t either” (CNN)!

The imagery of military weapons and foreign lands are intense. Caputo does not fail in describing every detail of weapons firing and munitions exploding. During one firefight “three Marines managed to sound like a small army, with Crowe’s shotgun roaring loudly. Then came the flat dull blasts of 40mm as Allen laid down a barrage with his grenade launcher” (Caputo 265). After another fire fight, Caputo’s platoon was getting shelled “a sound as of lightening striking a tree, a splitting sound. The earth shuddered” (Caputo 270).

Caputo also managed to capture Vietnam as if you were standing right next to him. Visions of everlasting green jungle canopies and a variety of blood sucking insects accompany you down his vivid trek through the jungle. Caputo describes the vegetation on a mission:
the Cordiller spread out before us, and it was the most forbidding thing I had ever seen. An unbroken mass of green stretched westward, one ridgeline and mountain range after another, some more than a mile high and covered with forests that looked solid enough to walk on. It had no end. It just went on to the horizon. I could see neither villages, nor fields, roads, or anything but endless rain forests the color of old moss.

The mosquitoes were terrible. They were so bad that the Marines would stay up instead of sleeping to try and take their mind off of the little bloodsuckers. In the jungle however, there were bigger animals to be afraid of. The “humid wilderness where the Bengal tiger stalked and the Cobra coiled beneath its rock” (Caputo 82) was just as dangerous without the Viet Cong present.

As a member of the Marine Corps I can relate to some of the experiences Caputo illustrates in his novel. The training he went through prior to Vietnam carries on today. I spent a year overseas and understand the difficulties of being an American in a strange land. This novel “was first published in 1977 and has remained in print ever since” (Neiburg 4). A Rumor of War “remains a standard text on the Vietnam War” (Key West 1) and Caputo is “an important and perceptive commentator on what can happen when human beings struggle” (Key West 1) . William Spanos of Boundary 2 indicates the importance of Caputo’s message in his article “9/11 and the forgetting of the Vietnam War”. Spanos writes:
it is imperative that intellectuals who oppose the United States’ representation and conduct of the ‘war against terrorism’ retrieve the forgotten memory of the Vietnam War as Caputo’s deeply backgrounded, representative text articulates it…it is not simply its spetcral witness to the terror of America’s exceptionalist ‘search and destroy’ mentality that, despite the sustained attempt to obliterate it from history, continues to haunt the present American government…(Spanos 63)Spanos continues to argue that the American action taken in Vietnam will persist in today’s war on terror “the United States will no doubt succeed in its military mission to defeat the Taliban and to re-create an Afghanistan nation-state in its own image as it did—several times—in Vietnam in the early years of the war” (Spanos 63).

Works Cited
“Caputo, Philip,” 17th Annual Key West Literary Seminar. 12 Apr. 2005

“Caputo, Philip,” Amazon. 18 Mar. 2005

“Caputo, Philip,” Contemporary Authors Online. 2005. Thomason Gale. 12 Apr. 2005

“Caputo, Philip,” Vintage. 18 Mar. 2005
“CNN Cold War –Interviews: Lt. Philip Caputo,” CNN Interactive. 18 Mar. 2005
King, Brian. “Rumor of War: Reality of Combat.” 12 Apr. 2005
Neiberg, Michael S., et. al. “A Rumor of War A Conversation with Philip Caputo at 58.” Commentary Magazine Summer 2000:64. 18 Mar. 2005
Spanos, William V. “A Rumor of War: 9/11 and the Forgetting of the Vietnam War.” Boundary 2 2003: 29-66. Duke University Press. 12 Apr. 2005

Steele, Michael. Interview with Mike Steele. 18 Mar. 2005
“Writers Try to Make Sense of the Vietnam-Book Boom,” The New York Times 4 Aug. 1987: C17. 12 Apr. 2005

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